May 14, 2003


Convicted former Chicago city treasurer Miriam Santos hopes that personal vindication, professional redemption and political resurrection may be imminent.

According to sources close to Santos, a petition has been filed with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago and with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington seeking a review of Santos' Oct. 27, 2000, plea to one count of felony mail fraud. The premise of the petition is an alleged violation of Santos' due process rights, with a specific focus on the failure of the U.S. attorney's office to disclose, prior to the 1999 trial, its witness impeachment information.

The undisclosed information relates to Citicorp Bank and to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. Both were key prosecution witnesses at Santos' trial: Citicorp employees as to alleged pressure by Santos on them to contribute to her 1998 campaign for Illinois attorney general and Madigan as to his recommendation to Santos of a fund-raising plan to secure contributions from banks in which the city made deposits. At that time, the treasurer's office managed a $4.1 billion city investment portfolio.

Santos was indicted in January 1999 on five counts of attempted extortion, five counts of mail fraud and two counts of wire fraud. The misconduct arose during her 1998 campaign for Illinois attorney general, when city employees were doing campaign work for her while on the job. In 1999 she was running for re-election, and she demanded an expeditious trial. Judge Charles Norgle accommodated her and set the trial for April, which was too expeditious for her criminal defense attorney, who was scheduled for another trial in April and who wanted it set for the summer, so Santos had to get another attorney. Pre-trial discovery proceeded at a breakneck pace.

At trial, nine of the treasurer's 16 employees testified, with many stating that they thought that Santos was instructing another employee to force them to do political work -- absolute hearsay. Medical evidence regarding Santos' thyroid condition was barred. Santos claimed that the illness made her "irritable and aggressive," which she said explained why she demanded that a bank which had city deposits "belly up" with some 1998 campaign cash. The comment was taped, and it was used at the trial. Santos was convicted by a jury of six counts -- five of mail fraud and one of attempted extortion, based on the taped phone call -- and she was sentenced to 40 months in jail. She immediately forfeited her office.

But a federal appeals court reversed Santos' conviction in January 2000, citing an "avalanche of error" by Norgle and specifically noting his failure to delay the trial for Santos' attorney of choice, as well as the hearsay and medical evidence matters, prevented her from having a fair trial. After 112 days in jail, Santos was freed and resumed her city post.

Despite a huge media hue and cry not to re-try her, and despite criticism that his office botched the prosecution, U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar remained adamant that a new trial would proceed. Lassar, a Democrat and a Clinton Administration appointee, could have elected to drop the charges, which would have exonerated Santos, made her a heroine to Hispanics and many other voters, ensured her re-election as treasurer in 2003, and made her Mayor Rich Daley's likely successor at some future date. At the time of the reversal on appeal, Lassar had his plate full, with his office prosecuting many of Governor George Ryan's cronies and employees in the "Operation Safe Roads" probe of corruption in the Illinois Secretary of State's Office. Why didn't he cut Santos some slack?

Those close to Santos believe that it was Daley and his brother Bill who targeted her, pressured the Department of Justice to investigate her, pressured Lassar to indict her, and pressured Lassar to re-try her. Why else, these sources argue, would a Democratic White House and a Democratic Justice Department be so tenacious in pursuing a Chicago Democrat who happened to be the city's top Hispanic politician, as well as the city's number one Daley critic?

But it was Santos who relented, not Lassar. Facing another grueling trial in November 2000, Santos pleaded guilty on Oct. 27, 2000, to one count of felony mail fraud and was sentenced to "time served." She was booted out of office again, her law license was suspended, and her political career was over at age 44. Since she pleaded guilty, there was no appeal.

Bowed but not broken, the Santos understood that her only hope of redemption was to find some "due process" or constitutional "equal protection" pretext to prompt the U.S. Attorney's Office to vacate the plea. The U.S. Code allows for post-conviction relief, or the appointment of an independent fact finder, if newly discovered evidence so warrants. Santos may have found not only sufficient evidence, but also a sympathetic ear in the Bush Administration's Justice Department.

The conduit for Santos is Victor Crown, the publisher of Illinois Politics magazine, who has filed for federal and state "whistleblower" protection. Crown has been in communication with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago, now run by Patrick Fitzgerald, a Republican appointee.

The information provided by Crown makes the following assertions:

First, that Citicorp, which was being investigated for laundering drug money as part of the federal "Operation Casablanca" probe in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, entered into a plea agreement, with a forfeiture of $12.2 million and dismissal of criminal charges, on March 30, 1999 -- five days before the close of discovery for the Santos trial. At Santos' trial, employees of Citicorp testified that she pressured them for contributions to her 1998 campaign and threatened to withdraw city funds from their bank if they didn't.

Evidence as to motivation can be used to impeach the credibility of a witness. Relative to Citicorp, Crown says that Santos' lawyers were not given information about the "Operation Casablanca" plea. If they had, they could have argued that Citicorp had a motive to cooperate with the feds, and that could have diminished the credibility of the testimony of Citicorp's employees against Santos.

And second, that information about Madigan, who acknowledged in his testimony that he coached Santos on how to raise money from the banks in which she deposited city funds, was concealed by the U.S. attorney. Madigan's testimony was extraordinarily damaging to Santos, as it confirmed that the one tape-recorded "belly up" phone call was part of a plan. But did Madigan have any motive to testify?

At the time of the 1999 trial, Madigan was under investigation by the Sangamon County State's Attorney's Office for allegedly arranging a "ghost payroll" job for Glenn Bradford, a Democratic state representative, in order to get him to resign his seat. That information allegedly was not disclosed by the U.S. attorney to Santos.

Also, information previously had been submitted to the Illinois Attorney General's Office concerning the fact that Madigan, who holds common stock in five major banks, voted on 139 banking bills in the House from 1971 to 2000.  Did Republican Attorney General Jim Ryan (who beat Santos in 1998) ever begin an investigation of Madigan for ethics violations? If so, that should have been disclosed. Likewise, Madigan, as speaker, has a major role in determining the funding of the attorney general's office. So if Ryan didn't investigate Madigan, was it because Ryan feared budgetary retribution?

Nevertheless, Crown said, the U.S. attorney failed to submit any information from Ryan's office about Madigan or from Madigan's office about his banking votes. "We believe there was collusion between Madigan and Ryan," he said.

The bottom line: Did Santos knowingly and intelligently enter her October 2000 plea? If the impeachment information was intentionally denied to her, then she didn't, and the plea should be vacated and a new trial ordered.

As this story unfolds, there is a major political subtext. If the feds vacate Santos' conviction, it will be because of the ineptitude or misconduct of a Democratic-appointed U.S. attorney. By exonerating Santos, who is of Puerto Rican ancestry, the Republicans will score political points with the Hispanic community and create the impression that Santos was a victim of a Daley-led political vendetta.

Not only would Santos then have the basis for a multi-million-dollar civil rights lawsuit, naming the Daleys and the U.S. Department of Justice as defendants, among others, but she also would be politically rehabilitated. The key question: Would she switch and become a Republican?

Santos, it will be recalled, was a onetime ally of Daley, and she was appointed Chicago's treasurer in 1989, following Daley's election as mayor. If Santos' reversal of legal fortune comes to pass, she could follow Daley as mayor.